Special Ops General Concerned with 'Culture, Social Behavior' Aspects of Women in Combat

As the Defense Department rolled out its plans today to integrate women into combat roles, a director at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) expressed the loudest skepticism from military leaders yet that the administration's Jan. 1, 2016, goal would go off without a hitch.

The Pentagon released implementation plans for shifting women into previously closed positions, following up on the January decision to rescind the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and SOCOM all submitted their plans over the spring for review by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

"I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our warfighting capability," Hagel said in a memo accompanying the release.

"The Department remains committed to removing all gender barriers, wherever possible, and meeting our missions with the best qualified and most capable personnel," he added.

As many as 237,000 front-line combat positions could open up to women. Job exemptions would have to be requested by each service branch and approved by Hagel and Dempsey to remain men-only.

And Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, director of force management and development at SOCOM, told reporters at the Pentagon today that he's making no guarantees.

"We have some genuine concerns that must be addressed prior to making an informed recommendation to the secretary of defense, a recommendation which complies with the chairman's guiding principles of preserving unit readiness, cohesion, and morale," Sacolick said.

"Of particular concern is our mission set, which predominantly requires our forces to operate in small, self-contained teams, many of which are in austere, geographically isolated, politically sensitive environments for extended periods of time. This complexity requires a unique assessment predicated upon detailed analysis, ultimately providing a single, clear, consistent procedure for execution throughout the SOCOM enterprise."

He noted that "a decision made by a single service can have rippled effects across the SOCOM enterprise."

SOCOM, through both its own command and the RAND Corp., is studying the potential impacts of letting women into the Navy SEALs and special boat crews and the Army Rangers. In the Marines Special Operations Command, SOCOM is looking at critical skill operator positions; in the Air Force, they are looking at special tactics officers, combat controllers, and special operations weather personnel.

"Because the Rangers are infantrymen, that will be dependent upon an Army decision to ultimately integrate," Sacolick said, adding nearly 15,500 positions could open to women.

"I can ensure you we are not predisposed to any particular course of action. Once the studies are complete and all the facts and the data have been collected, the U.S. SOCOM commander, in conjunction with the service chiefs, will make their recommendation to the secretary of defense," he stressed. "At this point, no decisions have been made. And I'll state that again. We haven't made any decisions whatsoever."

Under questioning from reporters, Sacolick said he was hearing the rank-and-file -- and his concern wasn't so much about a woman's muscular strength.

"Their concerns are, you know, once again, that you got a 12-men ODA and an isolated case, how is that -- what are the implications there?" he said of the reaction from men in the field. "There's all those things that we're concerned about, probably more so than the actual standards in our qualification courses…culture, social behavior. Those aspects of ultimate integration."

Still, Sacolick said it's conceivable that a special ops team in the future could have 11 men and one woman.

"We're looking for smart, qualified operators," he said, noting women are "underrepresented" in civil affairs and psychological operations. "The days of Rambo are over. I mean, we're looking for young men that can speak and learn a foreign language and understand culture, that can work with indigenous populations and culturally attune manners."

The rank-and-file will get the opportunity to share their thoughts on the integration of women in a survey. "I might add that sometimes we underestimate the capacity of our younger troops to embrace change, to embrace diversity, and I just want to provide them an opportunity to voice their concerns in this survey," Sacolick said.

"I have got to be the honest broker in this process, and we've got to let it work," he said of the review process. "So I don't want to predispose anybody or this process to my personal opinions on the subject. I just want to see what happens."

Army Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg stressed the goal of implementing "gender-neutral standards," then clarified "we have to make sure that we have the requirements of that task established, regardless of whether they're male or female, because the worst thing that we could do is change that standard for that position, whether it's even a medic on the battlefield or whether it's an infantryman."

"This isn't to set anybody up for failure," Bromberg said. "This is all about success, and we're calling it soldier 2020. You'll notice it's soldier for 2020. It's not male soldier or female soldier. This scenario that we've been working on for years to identify to how to improve the force of the future."

Marine Col. John Aytes, head of the military policy branch, said more than 250 physically demanding tasks gleaned from 335 primary military occupational specialities would be put to the test in the coming weeks.

"This summer we'll test 400 male and 400 female Marines using those proxy tests, and then we're going to correlate that data against those Marines' existing physical fitness test and combat fitness test, or PFT and CFT events, and using that information as collected, we're going to try to build a safe, a very simple screening test that we're going to use to contract our applicants coming into the Marine Corps," Aytes said.

"If we recommend implementing a policy without exemptions, we'll open those identified MOS's and units or units in a logical sequence that neither impacts the combat effectiveness of the unit, nor the capability of the individual Marine," he added.

An example of the tests? "We're in a cramp compartment. A tank gunner must reach over to the rack, lift that 55-pound shell from the rack, pull it out, flip it over, and insert it into the breach," Aytes said. "There's deadlift. There's the 155 round, which is our artillery round. The tank round, as well as scaling a wall."

"Load the tank round has got to be one that is done by a male tank gunner or a female tank gunner. We don't have different size weight rounds for them, and it's got to be done by everybody," he added.

Sacolick said he's not comfortable with the term "gender-neutral standards."

"We have standards. And they equate to an operational requirement on a battlefield. Our mission is different, so our standards are different," said the SOCOM general.

"We send a 12-man A-Team or even smaller into very austere, remote environments by themselves. In many respects, they may be the only Americans serving in a particular country. And so I think we have to -- you know, that complicates, you know, integration, and that's our concern," Sacolick continued.

When asked if there were reasons women couldn't meet behavioral or social standards, Sacolick replied, "I'm actually more concerned with the men and their reaction to women in their formations, quite frankly. But it's just too premature to answer that question definitively."

Studies will be due to SOCOM by July 1, 2014, and they don't intend to make a final recommendation to the Pentagon until July 1, 2015.